An Outdoor Adventurer's Driving Itinerary in San Luis Obispo
Although the city of San Luis Obispo itself has enough to keep any visitor entertained for days, you'd be remiss not to head out into the rest of the county and enjoy the area's wild beauty. Many travelers pass through SLO as an ending point or gateway to a drive along Highway 1 through Big Sur, but plenty more people realize that this place doesn't require venturing far away from to experience the very best of the Central Coast.
If You Have a Morning...
Start your day by heading north to the cozy hamlet of Cambria. Here, you'll turn off of Highway 1 and follow the coast for a mile along Moonstone Beach Drive. This is sea lion country -- wake up early enough for the sunrise and you'll be greeted by a chorus of barking as the giant sea mammals greet the dawn.
Spend your morning walking the beach, exploring tide pools and gazing at the sometimes-lazy, sometimes-playful sea lions, before enjoying a picnic at San Simeon State Park.
If You Have a Whole Day...
After lunch, head to Morro Bay. The protected harbor and looming Morro Rock beckon ships to this historic seaport and kayakers onto the water. Rent a solo or tandem kayak from an outfitter like Kayak Horizons and hit the blue expanse, keeping your eyes peeled for sea otters along the way.
Just walking the waterfront in Morro Bay is a treat, but to really enjoy the full experience, getting on the water is a must. The town is also home to a small aquarium, although the conditions belie its creation in the 1960s. If you've just come from Monterrey, lower your expectations, but at $2 an entry, it's worth the chance to see the plant and animal life under the surface of the bay at eye level.
Before heading back to SLO, stop into the Los Osos Elfin Forest, at the south end of town. The 90-acre forest's salty soil and harsh coastal environment led to a rich diversity of 'small trees,' including pygmy oak and maritime chaparral. At just under a mile, the boardwalk trail is friendly for all ages (and of course, with little ones, play up the existence of elves amidst the winding, twisted shrubs).
If You Have Two Days...
San Luis Obispo County is one of the best places in the state to spot the California Condor, the biggest flying land bird in the country. With a wingspan of nearly 10 feet, these giant vultures have made an impressive comeback from near-extinction. Spotting one in the sky is an unforgettable site.
For the best chance at seeing one, head about an hour from town to the Hi Mountain Lookout Project. To get to the top, you'll need to call for permission and have a vehicle with 10-inch clearance to cross a small creek on the road (www.condorlookout.org). Researchers tracking the birds work from this mountain-top lookout, as well as maintaining a public Visitor Center, where you'll learn more about condor ecology and history than anywhere else in the world. Open without reservations from July to September, even those without a high-clearance vehicle can make the hike to the summit.
If you've worked up a sweat on Hi Mountain, you may be tempted to cool off in Santa Margarita Lake, but as a public reservoir, it's off limits for swimming. Still, the adjacent county park is well worth a hike along the bumpy road that circles the pretty reservoir. If you're an angler, take note: Santa Margarita is well-stocked with rainbow trout, as well as largemouth bass.
If You Have Three Days...
One of the Central California coast's greatest assets is its abundance of hiking with stunning mountaintop views across the ocean. Just 15 minutes from downtown SLO, Montana De Oro State Park is a gem of the Central Coast. Give yourself a full day and pack plenty of water and snacks, exploring the stunning ridgeline as you climb with a constant view of the Pacific. Shrubs and grasses predominate the plant life, affording vistas from nearly anywhere on the trails. At the coastline, dramatic cliffs and rock formations provide postcard perfect spots that demand plenty of photographs.
After a long day of hiking, head back into San Luis Obispo. If you can time your trip for a Thursday, the downtown Farmer's Market literally brings the city to life, with enough local food prepared on the spot to tempt you to overeat while enjoying plenty of local entertainment.
If you've become enchanted by this tucked-away jewel of the Central Coast, take even more time to explore the Pismo Dunes or find a hideaway in the mountains of the Los Padres National Forest. For all the outdoor adventures San Luis Obispo County has to offer, you'll need far more than three days. Give yourself time to let the beauty of this coastal county really sink in.